This essay examines the three main female characters in Kate Chopin’s famous novel.
Women of The Awakening
The Awakening is the work for which Kate Chopin is best remembered. It is also the one that cost her her career. Although Chopin was a prolific writer and had published many short stories of psychological complexity that explored the status of women in Victorian culture, her frank approach to sexuality and infidelity was so shocking that contemporary critics savaged the novel. It seems to me to be the logical extension of her previous writings; nevertheless, she crossed the “boundaries.” She stopped writing soon after the failure of The Awakening, robbing us of a great literary talent.
This paper compares the three main female characters of the novel: Edna Pontellier, Adele Ratignolle, and Mademoiselle Reisz with emphasis on their character, background, and behavior in the Creole culture.
IIBrief Plot Summary
It’s possible to sum up the plot of the novel in one sentence: a young woman trapped in a stifling marriage has an affair with a man she doesn’t love; declares her love to the man she does care for only to have him run from her, and drowns herself. Although this is exactly what happens, this facetious bare-bones outline doesn’t begin to do justice to the book, which is lyrical, beautiful and deeply moving. Chopin has written a novel of great psychological insight, an exploration of the feelings and dreams of women, and how the thwarting of desire leads, in this case, to tragedy. Another woman might have learned to live with the kind of well meant but smothering male domination represented in the book by Mr. Pontellier, but Edna can no longer make the compromise. When she realizes that the man she really loves is also bound by convention, her life ceases to have meaning, and she ends it.
... characters. Edna’s awakening begins with Adele Ratignolle. Taking into account upper class values, it was impossible for a woman ... sensuous susceptibility to beauty’ (Chopin, 1995). It is not then a romantic love which attracts Edna to Adele but ... primarily because he was handsome and differed greatly from other men. Taking into account this situation, symbolically, the author depicts ...
I’d also like to mention Chopin’s descriptive power. She paints the vivid life of New Orleans so beautifully that we can easily see it before our eyes. Chopin was “influenced” by Creole culture, and her affinity for it colors the whole book. (Lee, PG).
The party before Edna leaves for the “pigeon-house,” and the summer places on Grand Isle stand out in particular. But perhaps the most potent symbol of all is the Gulf: mysterious, beautiful, soothing, empowering, and freeing. When Edna learns to swim it is a transforming moment for her and where he real awakening begins.
Perhaps the most important point to remember about Edna is that she is an outsider. She was born in Kentucky and doesn’t share the Creole traditions and behaviors of the people that surround her. She is the only main character in the book who is not a Creole, and it’s obvious that she is uncomfortable with the openness of their culture; the “sensual Creole society of Louisiana.” (Robinson, PG).
Further proof of her discomfort with the frank nature of Creole life is found early in the book, when Madame Ratignolle “shocks” Edna by describing one of her experiences of childbirth in explicit detail to a man. “Their freedom of expression was at first incomprehensible to her…” (Chopin, p. 9).
And yet “Edna Pontellier epitomized the consummate New Woman of the late nineteenth century. She embodied the social ideals for which women of that era were striving.” (Sprinkle, PG).
At the time Chopin was writing, women were totally subservient to their husbands; they still did not have the right to vote. Chopin resists the temptation to make Léonce a villain, which is wise, because he’s not a bad man; he is simply a typical husband of the time, and even more particularly of the place:
... normal woman, therefore many male readers are more sympathetic to her than to Edna.Bibliography:Chopin, Kate ... is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman (Chopin, Chapter VI). This, of course, ... life of a housewife, who is loved by her husband and children, which remains ... women, as seen in 19th century those that were content with the traditional role of housewives, subscribed to them by the society ...
“In New Orleans, for instance, the Napoleonic Code still formed the basis for the marriage contract. The wife and all her ‘accumulations’ after marriage were the property of her husband, and she was legally bound to live with him and to follow him wherever he chose to go.” (Dimock, PG).
He loves his wife, but she has little reality for him as a separate human being with a mind and will of her own. It’s obvious that he’s concerned about her and about their marriage, for he seeks advice when they begin to drift apart. But the doctor to whom he turns can’t help either, for he’s caught in the same trap, that of viewing women only in relation to men—though it seems as if he understands something of Edna’s turmoil, far better than her husband. Léonce sees her entirely in connection with her status as his wife and the mother of his children. That is the role she is destined to play in life, and he cannot see her in any other.
Creole society has precisely prescribed rituals as well, such as “at home days.” In order to find herself, Edna begins to ignore these traditions. “The person that Edna becomes through the process of discovering herself is willing to break all the rules of society that previously confined her.” (Fischer, PG).
It is precisely this “dictated” life that begins to chafe on Edna. It begins at Grand Isle during the summer, when Robert Lebrun pays “court” to her. This appears to be another typically Creole behavior: Robert knows full well that Edna is married, and yet he flirts with her, runs errands for her, accompanies her when she goes on walks or goes to the beach; he is like a model of courtly love from Medieval French society. He expects no fulfillment of the relationship, merely the pleasure of her company. But she begins to confuse this behavior with real affection, and falls in love with him.
Madame Ratignolle sees what’s happening, and tells Robert not to pursue Edna. In so doing, she also reiterates the point that Edna doesn’t understand Creole society:
“Nonsense! I’m in earnest; I mean what I say. Let Mrs. Pontellier alone.”
“Why?” he asked, himself growing serious at his companion’s solicitation.
“She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously.” (Chopin, p. 19)
... Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. Although these two women are very different, both influenced Edna s decisions about her life greatly. The ideas both presented Edna ... relationship, with each other as well as with their children. Adele was perfectly happy attending to her family s ... about Kate Chopin s novel, The Awakening, one must recognize the impact the other characters had on Edna. The two ...
All this sounds like Edna has no backbone, but that’s not at all true. She is simply still “asleep” until she learns to swim and coincidentally begins to love Robert; then, as she “awakens” to the possibilities of love, she sees how circumscribed her life truly is. And she can no longer bear it.
Edna is also an artist, though her paintings are apparently only workmanlike, not tremendously successful. Still, the artistic temperament makes her easy with people that others dislike or disdain, Mademoiselle Reisz in particular. This artistic bent may also help explain why she becomes so introspective and concerned with self-examination.
Critics remain divided over whether Edna’s suicide is an expression of defeat or victory, or if it is her final, ultimate freedom from the tyranny of her life.
Madame Ratignolle is at one end of the spectrum of femininity, Mademoiselle Reisz at the other, with Edna somewhere between. Among them, they encompass three fundamental women: Goddess, Woman, and Crone.
Madame Ratignolle is one of Edna’s closest friends, but she doesn’t appear in the bulk of the book. She is a Creole, and a rare beauty as well. Whereas Edna is not a “mother-woman” (what a terrific word!), Adèle most certainly is. She is one of those women who “idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” (Chopin, p. 8).
Further, Chopin describes her physically, and in doing so makes her seem larger-than-life, overblown, a creature from a fairy tale; perhaps the angel mentioned above:
“[She] was the embodiment of grace and charm. … There was nothing subtle or hidden about her charms; her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent: the spun-gold hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that were like nothing but sapphires; two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries or some other delicious crimson fruit in looking at them.” (Chopin, p. 8).
She is growing a bit stout with her developing pregnancy, but that too is beautiful; Chopin tells us that no one seeing Adèle would want to change her in any way. In other words, the position of woman as child bearer is ratified by Adèle, who is described as particularly gorgeous now.
... husband to control the life of the life of his wife. It is not normal for a woman to leave her husband ... of your own. The society Edna comes from pushes her to rebel against her life, try to live her own ... the ocean tearing apart the walls as she swims. Edna made a sacrifice that is necessary to change the ... can't escape the world they live in. When Edna gets the note she realizes what Robert is saying ...
She is a generous and spontaneous woman, and is “very fond” of Edna, yet misreads her completely; she simply doesn’t understand Edna’s longing:
“First and perhaps most significant [of those people in her life] is her intimate friend Adèle Ratignolle, happily married and in the early stages of pregnancy when the novel begins. It is certain that Adèle’s plump, maternal body and her affectionate, mothering nature call deeply to Edna. “Pauvre chérie,” Adèle murmurs reassuringly to her disconsolate friend as they sit in the sand. And Edna is moved to an outpouring of emotion—tangled thoughts and memories reappearing for the first time since childhood. Above all, she longs for benign fusion with some oceanic feeling beyond the limitations of self. But Edna is puzzled by her affection for Adèle: Adèle’s happiness, the prosaic bliss of a “mother-woman” in love with her husband and content in the world of her children seems insufficient, finally, to Edna.” (Wolff, PG).
Adèle is happy with her husband, her life, and the way things are for women, which may be why she disappears for the greatest portion of the book. A woman such as she has no place in Edna’s soul-searching, or her quest to be free. Neither of these ideas holds any interest for Madame Ratignolle. When she does return to the narrative, it’s a harrowing appearance: she’s in labor, giving birth to her fourth child. Edna has promised she’ll be there, so when Adèle calls for her, she goes to help with the birth. But there are already a great many people there, and she’s superfluous, so all she can do is stand around and watch her friend suffer. Chopin calls it a “scene of torture.” (P. 110).
When at last the child is born, Adèle tells Edna to “think of the children.” After the conversation on Grand Isle, she is aware of the fact that Edna is unhappy in her marriage, but she is of the school of thought that a woman must simply go on with the relationship, no matter how difficult or unpleasant it may be. So her whispered injunction to Edna to think of the children may be seen as a betrayal, a desire to send her back to her husband and back into a marriage that is stifling her. She returns to her little house from Adèle’s bedside only to find Robert has gone. She remains awake all night, and the next morning returns to Grand Isle and walks into the Gulf.
... The Awakening, a realist novel, focused on the role of women through the eyes of Edna Pontellier, the protagonist ("Kate Chopin" 4 ... to become her masterpiece, The Awakening. The Awakening was published in 1899. In The Awakening, Chopin accomplished the largest exploration of ... ). While on a summer vacation without her husband, Edna met and ...
Like Adèle Ratignolle, Mademoiselle Reisz exerts a powerful influence on Edna, but doesn’t appear much in the book. She “offers Edna an alternative to the role of being another ‘mother-woman.’ The old, unmarried woman has devoted her life to music and is perceived as unusual because of her outspoken views.” (“The Awakening by Kate Chopin,” PG).
Mademoiselle Reisz, like Edna herself, is an outsider. Although a Creole, she has chosen a different path, and shunned the “mother-woman” stereotype that she was expected to fulfill. Instead, she has remained unmarried, and in addition, has become a piano virtuoso. She is plays with such fire and passion that she calls a similarly passionate response from Edna, though no one else is as moved by her playing. Their shared appreciation for art, as well as Mademoiselle Reisz’s understanding of some of the issues troubling the younger woman (she knows that Edna is in love with Robert) draw them together.
In addition, Mademoiselle Reisz has absolutely no use for the conventions of society, and refuses to follow them. “She was a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with almost every one, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others.” (Chopin, p. 25).
There are two important points in this passage, the fact that Mademoiselle Reisz is self-assertive, and that she tramples on others. It’s as if Reisz is a role model for Edna, as least as she learns to assert herself. The old woman is viewed as eccentric and unpleasant, and yet she has never been excluded from society. Perhaps Edna sees in her example the hope that she can live the life she wants and still retain her friends; or perhaps she at least sees that there is an alternative to remaining a “possession” of her husband.
However, despite her tremendous musical talent, Reisz’s life lacks love—of any kind. (“The Hopeless Plight,” PG).
She stands in direct contrast to Madame Ratignolle in every way: she is old, Adèle is young; she is ugly (she is actually described as such) while Adèle is beautiful; she has never had children while Madame is about to deliver her fourth; and apparently she has no love in her life, while Adèle is adored. Then too, the Ratignolles are comfortably off, Mademoiselle seems poor, or at least poor for the society in which she lives. It’s as if between the two, they offer Edna supreme examples of either end of the spectrum of womanhood, and she realizes that neither one is what she wants to be. She wants only to be herself, and in her time and place, that’s not possible.
... Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Chelsea, 1987. Chopin, Kate. The Awakening.New York: Avon, 1972. Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists ... "brave soul. The soul that dares and defies' (Chopin 106). Edna strives to succeed, but Leonce puts her down.He ... and freedom by overcoming male dominance in her relationships. Chopin's protagonist, Edna, and Hurston's feminist, Janie, discover that ...
The Awakening is a fascinating book. I’d read it years ago and just reread it, and found much more in it this time than I did earlier. It’s obviously a work that repays those who visit it more than once.
The entire issue of a woman’s sexual awakening to the one man who will bring her a complete understanding of her own nature is one that underlies a great many literary forms. Who, after all, is Prince Charming except the man who knows us better than we know ourselves? It is perhaps Edna’s tragedy that her prince ultimately turns out to be so bound by convention that he lacks the courage to return her love.
Edna is shaped by both Adèle and Mademoiselle Reisz, in the sense that they show her what she does not want; Reisz, however, also shows her an alternative, but it’s clear that the alternative has a high price. In the end, Edna can’t pay it, and instead chooses her own escape.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.
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